Tony Benn’s personal impact has been enormous. My parents first met at a talk he gave at the University of London Union. As children, my sisters and I were taken to see him speak on many occasions. Growing up, his values, compassion and ideas deeply reinforced my politics. He has been something like a political grandfather.
My earliest memory of Benn was at the Hay Literature Festival towards the beginning of the millennium, where he appeared alongside singer Roy Bailey. What struck me then was the great value in shaping one’s politics from the lessons of history. At Marxism Festival in 2011, I asked him whether it would be possible to achieve radical change in the current political climate, drawing comparisons with the NHS’s creation against the financial odds of the post-war era. His response was that people have a duty to encourage others to achieve change, a recurrent theme in his book, “Letters to my Grandchildren”.
Despite disagreeing with many of the decisions made by the Labour Party, Benn remained loyal. He saw it not as a socialist party, but one that housed a broad alliance of members and activists from different persuasions amongst the Left. In a 2006 interview, he humorously remarked: “[The Labour Party] has never been a socialist party, but it’s always had socialists in it, just as there are some Christians in the Church”.
These words should provide encouragement for the disillusioned Left in the party, reminding many that the power for change comes from within and underneath. Although Benn has been criticised for his role in dividing the Labour party in the early 1980s, he should be applauded for his resistance to the creeping neoliberal hegemony that dominates current political discourse.
Benn taught us that idealism and pragmatism are not mutually exclusive concepts, that it is possible to think big and achieve big aims. A combination of idealism and pragmatism has secured this country its finest policy achievements: the expansion of suffrage throughout the 19th and early 20th century; the creation of the NHS; and the progressive social reforms of the 1960s and 70s, to highlight a few.
Moreover, Tony Benn was a true democratic socialist. A type of politics that is inherently pragmatic, it understands that people’s attitudes are shaped by their experiences and proposes change to deal with crises. Conversely, the Right argues that idealism is dogmatic and always has the same, increasingly inapplicable solutions to deal with complex and evolving problems. Their defence of financial speculation and deregulation, despite it being the cause of the 2008 economic crash, is a prime example of this.
When someone of such significance passes away, those left behind must carry the gauntlet. It is our generation’s responsibility to work for change so that future generations have something to build upon. The challenge today is to repair the damage to our public services and social mobility wreaked by the Right and set out specific demands for reform. As Benn recognised, and as we too must know, it is not dogmatic of us to demand an end to war, poverty and economic injustice.
In drawing up a vision for the future, we must remember Benn’s contagious optimism, ask ourselves what we settle for and raise the bar for politics in this country.
Photo: Victor de Jesus